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Thursday, May 29, 2008

Censorship is always in a good cause

I realise this isn't the sort of place this blog normally goes but since Matthew Parris has broken cover to question the idiocy of the government's plan to make obscene drawings involving children illegal I should add my barely audible squeak of agreement to what he says in today's Times:
Maria Eagle, the Justice Minister, said that the move was not intended to curb creativity or freedom of expression but to tackle images that had “no place in society”. Crikey - the intellectual sloppiness! The move does curb creativity and freedom of expression: it curbs both in pursuit of what its proponents consider the greater public good. No censorship in history has ever been advanced on any other ground.
With the apparent connivance of the legal profession and encouraging moos from the media this government continues to act as if it finds itself faced with forms of evil that have never before been encountered in human society, crimes that require whole new laws to combat. I'm a simple soul but I've always understood that the law was there to deal with the consequences of people's actions and not the contents of their hearts. If this is passed into law it will subsequently be repealed by people who'll wonder what on earth Maria Eagle was thinking of. They'll also be amazed that the rest of us just nodded it through because we were afraid of appearing to be on The Wrong Side.

Be sure your SMS will find you out

Very good piece in the new issue of Wired describing the "spying" scandal involving Ferrari and McLaren. American magazines are strong on this soup-to-nuts storytelling. You can even overlook the references to "Surrey county" because you get a story that even Formula One unbelievers like me can understand. You also get some idea of how it's next to impossible for misbehaviour to remain undetected nowadays. The story first came to light when the wife of a McLaren employee took a 780 page document into a copy shop and handed it to to a guy who happened to be not just a Formula One follower but also a Ferrari fan. (How one can be a fan of a car company is something I can't come to terms with.) When the scandal came to light the FIA got records of no less than 288 SMS messages and 35 phone calls between the two alleged culprits. In such a world it seems par for the course that Max Mosley's little session with Miss Whiplash would end up in the News of The World. And the fact that Mr Whiplash works for MI5 does not cause us to raise even an eyebrow.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

We are all in each other's pictures now

The digital camera is a wonderful thing but it has encouraged an infinite number of people to take an infinite number of infinitely unremarkable pictures. We were in Barcelona this weekend and visited the Casa Battlo, a rich man's house designed by Gaudi that has become one of the city's premier tourist attractions. Here you find yourself in a room with, say, twenty people, at least half of whom are taking pictures. This results in a strange new process of triangulation whereby no matter where you stand you are in somebody's picture. I was brought up in an era when photography was rare enough for you to be able to keep out of people's shots. It doesn't seem to be possible anymore. And photography is one of those things that increases in inverse proportion to people's competence. I have a friend who is a professional. It's very instructive to be a tourist in his company. He'll walk into a place where all the amateurs are snapping away as if they've got a once in a lifetime opportunity to capture a unique image and immediately say "there's no picture here".

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Champions League Final

When you're watching penalty shoot-outs you usually have some skin in the game. Because I genuinely didn't care who won last night's European Final, penalties made for a most unsatisfactory conclusion. The trouble is the shoot-out gives the media permission to break the whole evening all down to individual tragedies and triumphs. This is really not what any football game, let alone last night's, was all about. This morning it's van der Saar's heroic save and Terry's tragic slip and is Ferguson the best manager of all time? This is just post justifying waffle. It could have gone either way. It was on the edge of chaos throughout. The managers stood there soaked and screaming and powerless like they always do. The winning team had their luck in a different order than the losing team. There was no moral.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Class of 62

Marilyn Gaunt went to a secondary modern school in Leeds in the late 50s. Her film "Class Of '62" is about what happened to half a dozen of her fellow pupils. Last night it found them in their sixties in various degrees of contentment. Even the girl who'd apparently had a dream life hadn't had it easy. There were divorces, overbearing parents, unfaithful husbands, ungrateful children, illnesses and in the odd case a sadness so deep that Marilyn Gaunt clearly thought she should pass over it entirely. The fortitude of these women, none of whom could remotely be said to have brought any misfortune on themselves, was amazing, even including the couple who wanted to move to Greece to get away from the nanny state but then came scuttling back as soon as they wanted a bit of nannying. You can watch it here. I kept thinking of that Paul Simon song called "Some Folks Lives Roll Easy" which goes "most folks stumble and fall through no fault of their own". I tried to find it on YouTube but it appears to be the only song that isn't there.

Monday, May 19, 2008

What are TV presenters for?

"Russia: A Journey With Jonathan Dimbleby", the BBC series currently running on Sunday nights, makes you wonder. In his effort to get to the heart of this vast, mysterious land and its inscrutable people Dimbleby is somewhat handicapped by the fact that the only word of Russian he knows is the one for "thank you". The producer, whose idea this series presumably was, is fluent so she comes round the Dimbleby side of the camera to translate the star's questions and the answers of the drunk on the train or the retired collective farm worker in her garden. That means there are three people in the frame. Common sense dictates that if we had to lose one, surely it would be the star.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Rum work still pulled round the font

Britain's Youngest Grannies on BBC Three began with a clip from an early '70s BBC show in which a glamorous granny was a carefully-coiffed lady in her 70s dressed along the lines of the Queen. It went on to introduce us to three contemporary women in their thirties who had all had daughters in their teens, daughters who had returned the compliment by doing the same thing. They were very different families but all gave birth to girls who were given names like Rickeita, Lexi, Casie, Lalah and Aliyah. The naming of children gives us away. We tend to choose names that we hope they can grow into. Unless, that is, we secretly don't want them to grow up at all.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

To a blind horse

In the previous post somebody picked up on the point about radio presenters nodding when they interview you. It's remarkable what a key part of the broadcasting skill set nodding can be. In daily life they would you say "yes" or "uh huh". On the radio they have to use body language to do two things:
1. Get you talking.
2. Shut you up.
I have to turn off the Today Programme when I hear a "civilian" being interviewed because I know that by the time the interviewer has managed to get them talking it'll be time to shut them up, often with embarrassing abruptness.
Hence a fairly experienced hack like me knows that my main job is to start talking straightaway and keep going, while looking out for the tell-tale tics that indicate that the presenter either wants to move me on to another point or terminate the thing with something that could be passed off as an ending.
If it's a programme I'm used to doing, like "Front Row", they will tell me how long the item is and what illustrations they want me to cue. In such cases both the presenter and I are looking over each other's shoulders at the clocks behind us rather than at each other. If it's night time radio where you have generally been brought on to give the presenter a little thinking time, once they fling you a question you keep that answer going until it looks as if he's stopped taking instructions from the producer in their headphones and is ready to rejoin the conversation.
Of course none of this works if it's a phone interview. In that case you have to listen out for the strangulated vocal noises that indicates that they might want to cut in. Either that or the dead line that announces that they've already dropped your fader.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Sony presents the prizes

Congratulations to Simon Mayo, named Best Speech Broadcaster at last night's Sony Awards. Lots of former Radio One DJs have proved equal to doing a bit of speech but only Mayo has managed to establish himself as a proper all-rounder. His Five Live show proves he can handle anything from a Presidential primary to a sports story without resorting to the old DJ's trick of putting himself at the centre of the item. In the tradition of which I should point out that whenever I've guested on his show I have noted that as you're talking he looks at you as if he's not all that impressed. He doesn't employ the puppy eyes and vigorous nodding with which most presenters semaphore that you're on the right track. It seems to work. Whether he'll follow Five Live to Manchester we shall have to wait and see.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

A classy gesture in a shabby world

Saw Neil Warnock on Sky this afternoon, spitting bile at the ref after his Crystal Palace side lost against Bristol City in the play-offs. Seen from that perspective you can see why he's not on any list of the most popular men in football. In his defence, last night I went to the leaving party of a high powered magazine editor who happens to be a Sheffield United fan and hence one of Warnock's admirers. In putting together a valedictory video his colleagues had contacted Warnock to see if he would agree to take part. He said yes, despite never having known the individual. What's more, he volunteered a Sheffield United shirt signed by the entire (admittedly relegated) team as a gift.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Thursday, May 08, 2008

The last chance saloon?

Last year I blogged about Newsnight's tendency to dress up apparently "dry" items about politics as student skits, much to the amusement of the presenters and the bemusement of the audience. This provoked some comment, including a robust defence from the producer. I have only just had this item drawn to my attention. It ran as part of the BBC's Election Night coverage last week. Clearly they're taking the piss but whose piss is it? The politicians'? The licence payers'? Theirs?

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

First rule of comedy

Most of the hour-long programmes on TV should really be half an hour. I watch things which are half an hour long, such as Seinfeld, knowing they'll only be twenty-two minutes. I just watched one. This exchange between Jerry and George at a New York marathon party makes me laugh out loud every time. Sure enough, somebody's posted it on YouTube. Watch the hand that holds the cracker.

Day return

They're having another of those debates about public art tonight at the National Gallery. On the radio this morning they were talking about what happens when such projects go wrong and fell upon the example of the vast sculpture of the parting lovers at St Pancras. Londoners don't agree on much but if there were a show of hands right now it would clearly be removed.

Joan Bakewell's objections to it were that the couple were in modern dress, it was too big and it was somehow kitsch. I don't disagree with any of that but I also wonder if we are living in an age in which we are never going to agree about representational pieces of any kind.

For a start they're supposed to be saying a tender, heartfelt farewell. Do you still see that? You used to see people weeping all the time at railway stations. I'm not sure that's the case anymore. You see it at airports maybe, when Mum and Dad are returning to India and there's a chance the grandchildren will never see them again. But a young couple parting at St Pancras? They're going to be texting each other while she's on the way through Kent and they'll be on Skype as soon as she's in Paris. And anyway, she's coming back tomorrow, isn't she?

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Black sabbath

Last night somebody suggested that Spitalfields Market was a good place to go on Sunday morning. Determined that I wouldn't spend the entire weekend indoors, I suggested to the CEO that we should make a visit. The CEO doesn't like going on the Tube any more than she has to and I plain refuse to take the car. You won't be coming back with the drunks, I argued. It's London on a Sunday morning. It'll be fine.

To no avail. Determined not to be faced down, I got up early this morning and said that if nobody was going to come with me I was going to go on my own. Which I did. I took the train and bus to Liverpool Street, wandered around Spitalfields and back through the City into Covent Garden and then got on the tube at Leicester Square, feeling slightly smug that I had gone out to enjoy This Great City Of Ours while my family were still under the duvet.

My smugness was soon punctured. Between Leicester Square and Kings Cross I was targeted by the most active and aggressive loon I have encountered in forty years of using London Transport - and I'm Big City blasé when it comes to the extremes of human behaviour. Presumably off his medication, this bloke wasn't just jabbering to himself. He was jabbering directly at me, loudly and unintelligibly. When I didn't look him in the eye he lunged across the carriage and put his face between me and my book. He was fairly big and a lot younger than me. He wasn't the sort of person you would expect to be carrying a knife but the casualty departments are full of people who are naive in this respect.

He bothered me. He was certainly bothering the six-year-old sitting with his mother a couple of seats away. Had the CEO been there he would have bothered her in a big way and she would never have got on a tube train outside the rush hour ever again. The whole incident probably lasted about three minutes but it felt like ten and it's not easy to shake off its effect. I believe it's known as "lowering one's scene".

I just got home. How did it go, they asked.

Oh, fine.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Nothing dates like tech

I found this in a 1982 issue of Smash Hits. It's from a photo spread where various luminaries (members of Wham!, Garry Tibbs from the Vibrators, all the quality) pose with exciting new entertainment products of the time. If they can lift them, that is. Here Annie Lennox enthuses about the new light-weight VHS camerapack from Sony and suggests that we use it to make interesting documentary films that we can send to Channel Four. The power source is presumably following on an articulated lorry.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Hanging on in quiet desperation

I've just done what they say nobody does, which is watch an hour-long clip on the web. It's a lecture given recently by Elizabeth Warren, a Harvard law professor, about "the coming collapse of the middle class".

There are two reasons to watch it: she's a brilliant lecturer who, as far as I can see, is working without notes and just talking over a few Powerpoint slides. More importantly, her argument is a powerful one studded with lots of surprising details that you're tempted to introduce into dinner party conversation immediately. She sets a number of questions and then, on the basis of a study that compares the American family today to its predecessor thirty years ago, answers them. Does the average family spend more or less on clothes, food and appliances? How do hospitals become more efficient? Is it by curing the sick or sending them home? Do people believe in social mobility more or less than they believe that the moon landings were staged? Do you personally know more people who've gone bankrupt than people who've got divorced? And although the expression "middle class" summons up different pictures in America than it does in Britain – it's Homer and Marge rather than Margot and Jerry - I think a lot of her lessons could be applied here.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Heaven sent?

I'm reading John Gray's "Straw Dogs" , in which he argues that the secular humanism that passes for orthodox thought in most of Western society is merely the old religious impulse in a new guise. I hope he was watching Chelsea play Liverpool last night. That well-known Churchman Frank Lampard pointed to the sky after he'd scored his penalty, apparently "dedicating" his goal to his recently deceased mother. At the end that prominent man of faith Chelsea manager Avram Grant sank to his knees as if in thanks. In the post-match interview he muttered something about the Holocaust. What gets me about these gestures is their ostentatious nature and the fact that they appear to be playing up to some over-arching "triumph over tragedy" narrative provided by the papers and the TV.